New Music Friday - September 29, 2017
Looking for something new to listen to? Look no further - every Friday we'll round up our favorite new albums to share with you. Here's our favorites for the last week of September. Don't want to read words? We've put each of these albums into a playlist for you here.
Miley Cyrus - Younger Now
Younger Now is a bit of a sly nod to a public who watched Miley Cyrus explore a defiantly loud post-adolescence: she may be older, but she's not necessarily grown up. The joke is, Younger Now is most certainly an album that announces Miley's mature phase, a record that shakes off the druggy haze of Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz -- an album cut at the height of her infatuation with the Flaming Lips -- yet retains the services of Oren Yoel, a producer/songwriter who collaborated with her on that 2015 digital-only effort.
That's the first sign that Younger Now may not be the back-to-the-roots move its retro-iconography and Dolly Parton duet may suggest. Certainly, there are country-ish songs scattered throughout the album -- a hoedown and a waltz, but mostly ballads -- but they're delivered with an arched eyebrow, a distancing effect accentuated by how the album unfurls with a pair of songs where Cyrus brightens up the Californian melancholy of Lana Del Rey.
Despite a showstopping performance or two, the kind of pyrotechnics that sound ripped from the heart, sadness isn't Miley's thing. Her specialty is good times, either raving until the early dawn or chilling out on the beach...or maybe whiling away the hours online. Without ever succumbing to the garish neon extremes of Bangerz or the hangover ache of Dead Petz, Younger Now touches upon each of these obsessions and then wraps them in a tidy package. Occasionally, this slick veneer can masquerade the Internet irony of an individual song -- "Week Without You" plays like a Grease parody, the Dolly duet "Rainbowland" suggests a theme park of dancing GIFs -- but the professionalism of both the production and the performance highlights Cyrus' savvy skills. Younger Now reveals she's as comfortable crafting a plaintive country ballad ("Miss You So Much") as effervescent disco ("Thinkin'"), and the fact that these two seemingly disparate styles sit next to each other not altogether comfortably speaks to how Miley Cyrus' aesthetic is thoroughly modern.She may not bother with EDM drops or murmured vocals -- she's justifiably proud of flaunting her voice -- but she perceives no line dividing the past and the present, eagerly dressing up old-fashioned forms in newfangled sounds.
If Younger Now seems slightly scattered as it flits from song to song, it nevertheless adds up to a portrait of a pop star so confident of her swagger, she doesn't bother with such niceties as old-fashioned flow. She knows she's got style for miles and miles, enough to keep her afloat when the time comes that she delivers her country tunes with acoustic guitars, not digital instruments, and she has the wisdom to know that snappy sheen is precisely what this particular album needs.
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J. Roddy Walston - Destroyers of the Soft Life
Following several years of hard touring for their 2013 breakout album Essential Tremors, Richmond, Virginia rock quartet J. Roddy Walston & the Business took a breather, investing their energies into building a new studio space before settling in to write their fourth record. Walston's group has been around in some form or another since 2002, plying the singer/songwriter's distinctive mix of energized Southern and classic rock and hooky power pop to North American audiences. After a stint on Vagrant, they signed with ATO Records and connected squarely with Tremors, delivering a set of finely crafted songs that successfully bottled the freewheeling electricity of their fiery live shows.
If the first two tracks on their follow-up effort are any indication, those years spent road-dogging have only deepened the group's inner musical language. Destroyers of the Soft Life comes roaring out of the gate with the massive and instantly hummable "You Know Me Better," followed closely by its swaggering cousin "Blade of Truth." The top-loading of the LP's two best tracks serves to hook listeners and carry them through its remaining dips and peaks. Co-produced with Phil Ek (Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses), much of the band's sizzling energy runs throughout the rest of the set from rockers like "Numbers" to more contemplative fare like the slow-building "I Called You."
More so than on the wily Tremors, Walston takes a more direct, pop-oriented approach with his songwriting, going big on melody and playing to the back of the room with cavernous drum sounds and big, muscular riffs.
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Jessica Lea Mayfield - Sorry is Gone
Jessica Lea Mayfield's fourth solo LP, Sorry Is Gone, continues a career push-and-pull between soft-spoken country-rock and more assertive, riff-fueled indie rock. While her debut featured more of the former and her third solo album, 2014's Make My Head Sing..., embraced the latter, on Sorry Is Gone she takes her foot off the gas just a little and finds a zone where heartache and empowerment both sit comfortably.
Of note, the album was written during Mayfield's separation from her husband and prior music collaborator, Jesse Newport. After recording two albums with the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and Make My Head Sing... with Newport, she headed to the studio with a producer who has a knack for finding this type of raw sweet spot, John Agnello (Sonic Youth, the Hold Steady).
Combined with fuzz and twang, dreamy echo, and an unrestrained drawl, Mayfield's often woebegone delivery is also sharpened by candid, occasionally snide lyrics.
"Any tips on how to feel more human/Or how to un-dehumanize someone/I'm only asking for a friend."
Those are the opening words to the album's lone acoustic ballad, "Safe 2 Connect 2." It falls midway through a track list of an urgent borderline dream pop invigorated by guest musicians including Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and Grails bassist Emil Amos. A track like "Bum Me Out" leans more into post-punk and grunge, while "Soaked Through" diverges into shoegaze, but whether spare or raucous, they're all tied together by an emphatic reverb, the songwriter's conversational melodies, and sonic and lyrical grit. Without wishing her the same kind of personal inspiration in the future, it's Mayfield's most compelling work yet.
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Kamasi Washington - Harmony of Difference
It's tempting to hear Kamasi Washington's six-track Harmony of Difference suite as a follow-up to his sprawling, justifiably acclaimed three-hour debut The Epic. But this EP, at just over half-an-hour, is, in many ways, a standalone work. It was performed in New York at The Whitney Biennial as part of a show that included a film by director A.G. Rojas and paintings by Washington's sister Amani. According to the artist, it was composed to explore "the philosophical possibilities of the musical technique known as 'counterpoint.'"
Washington defines it as "the art of balancing similarity and difference to create harmony between separate melodies." That description is, at least in this setting, akin to metaphor in the current socio-political-cultural era where flash point battles over issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural appropriation are being waged afresh.
These six tunes reveal Washington's compositional and arrangement mastery. Five relatively short themes are all standalone tunes but are all embodied in the 13-minute climax "Truth," which embodies tenets from all of the preceding tunes but is an entirely new holistic rainbow of sound. Washington draws heavily on numerous influences from '70s jazz here, as well as the modal influence of John Coltrane. "Desire" introduces a melodic theme that emerges from spiritual soul-jazz, but with Matt Haze's electric guitar and a wordless vocal chorus, it touches on everything from Billy Harper's Capra Black (second side) to Santana's Caravanserai and Norman Connors' first three albums -- in four-and-a-half minutes! It opens onto the progressive big band -- à la Gerald Wilson -- of "Humility," which sports a fleet, knotty piano solo from Cameron Graves, a soulful trumpet break from Dontae Winslow, and Washington's squalling solo above a B-3, and the interplay between two drummers (Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, Jr.) and bassist Miles Mosely. "Knowledge" and "Perspective" make full use of CTI's illustrious palette for arrangement with an expansive horn chart. Ryan Porter's trombone solo comes right out of Los Angeles soul (the former) while Kamasi's honk and groove in the latter suggests the fleet funk of Grover Washington, Jr. and adds Thundercat on electric bass. The smooth switch gets flipped on in "Integrity," whose theme and rhythms actively engage Brazilian, Latin jazz, and West African jazz. The sprawling "Truth" adds a choir, vibes, and a full string section as it embraces the themes of its predecessors and stretches them to the breaking point, where they seamlessly meld into a wonder of color, tempo, improvisation, and lush exotic form.
Harmony of Difference reveals a gentler, more economical, but no less adventurous Washington. It's chock-full of refreshing, sophisticated ideas, all balanced by an empathic, emphatic inclusiveness that engages the listener at both musical and emotional levels.
Listen on Spotify
Wolf Alice - Visions of a Life
Wolf Alice mastered the glossy and grungy sides of alt-rock on My Love Is Cool, with songs like "Bros" and "Moaning Lisa Smile" earning them accolades that included a Grammy nomination. On Visions of a Life, they explore the wider - and sometimes wilder - facets of their music. To that end, they recruited producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who toured with the famously chameleonic Beck as his musical director and bassist, and also produced albums for acts as disparate as M83, Paramore, and the Raveonettes. With his help, Wolf Alice both narrow and widen their focus, isolating their bratty, fizzy guitar-pop on "Yuk Foo," "Space & Time," and "Beautifully Unconventional," and delving into the trippier side of their music on "Formidable Cool," "Sadboy," and the title track, which flirts with prog and metal in its ambitious sweep.
While these songs reaffirm that Wolf Alice can pull off almost any style of music, Visions of a Life's most convincing moments build on My Love Is Cool's forays into dream pop. Inspired by a late friend of the band, the aptly named opener "Heavenward" is so gorgeous that it's tempting to want Wolf Alice to concentrate on this side of their music in the future. Similarly, "Planet Hunter" and "St. Purple & Green" are potent reminders of just how well the band does huge moments, while Ellie Roswell's whispers bring intimacy to love's euphoric beginnings on "Don't Delete the Kisses" and its rocky end on "Sky Musings."
A reflection of a young band trying out all its possibilities, Visions of a Life is more scattered than My Love Is Cool, but its best songs hint at even more potential.
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